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Tour of Media Coverage for AmericaSpeaks’ One City Summit

I wanted to share excerpts from a few media pieces about the One City Summit held on February 11th in D.C. by NCDD organizational member AmericaSpeaks.  Most groups in our field work on a smaller scale or run their programs over a longer period of time (which is less media-grabbing), so it’s always interesting to see what the response is from the media and in the blogosphere to AmericaSpeaks’ events.

First, a bit of background…
1,700 DC citizens were brought together at the DC Convention Center to deliberate at small (but networked) tables about some of the big strategic questions facing the city. Participants were a demographically diverse group (e.g., 44% African American and 19% Latino), and they held diverse views even after talking. Participants prioritized the city’s issues, ranking the lack of affordable housing and corruption first and second, respectively. They also discussed ways to improve public education, create jobs and dispose of vacant city property.  Learn more on the AmericaSpeaks site here.

Vincent Gray resurrects the citizen summit (pre-event Washington Post article)

An interesting article by Mike DeBonis was published by the Washington Post, titled “Vincent Gray resurrects the citizen summit.” This was published a couple of weeks before the summit.  It questions whether continued large-scale periodic in-person summits are the way to go, or if the administration should focus more on using new technologies to encourage more of an ongoing dialogue with the public.  (Of course, we think a nice, integrated mix of face-to-face AND online is key!)

Here are some pertinent excerpts…

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is ripping a page straight out of his predecessor Anthony A. Williams’s playbook in planning a “One City Summit” for Feb. 11 at the Washington Convention Center.  Williams held four such summits, between 1999 and 2006, and they were generally well-received and can be fairly considered among the highlights of his eight years in office.

But can a straight reprise of what worked for Tony Williams work for Vince Gray, who campaigned on resurrecting the summits?

The Gray administration has hired the same outfit Williams did to run the summit, America Speaks, run by Clinton administration veteran and “deliberative democracy” specialist Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer. Their services do not come cheap…

Max Brown, who was a top aide to Williams, recalls the summits being worth the money because… the city government was suffering from “a real lack of engagement with the public writ large.” But Brown points out that the city has changed — there are more residents, services have improved, and everyday engagement is more consistent — so he’s wondering if the summits will change, too.

“I think there’s clearly value in engaging the public in a real material way,” he said. “But I think there needs to be a little bit more consistency in using that technology in a real consistent way.” How, he asks, can the city take advantage of new technology and new ways of connecting with constituents to “have a more ongoing dialogue with the public”?

But Neil Richardson, an executive at D.C.’s community college who helped organize Williams’s last two summits, said there’s not much reason to mess with a proven formula that helped the Williams administration craft budgets and respond to neighborhood concerns.  “In this day and age, when people are questioning what’s going on in the government, I don’t think there’s a better way to provide credibility for the government,” he said. “The process is a good one…”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, who said the administration is working on raising private funds to offset the costs, also said the tried-and-true format is the way to go. “The idea is the same; people can come and express their views and have their voices heard,” he said. “It’s been a while since people from different wards could gather, sit down at a table, and talk about what matters to them as citizens of the District. … There is still something about having individuals one on one, sitting in a room, that you cannot replicate with an online town hall or a tele-town-hall. You need face-to-face, one-on-one engagement.”

This seems to cover two main themes I noticed in the media’s coverage of the event:  a focus on the cost of the event, and a question about whether there might be cheaper ways of engaging citizens online in an ongoing manner.

Jeff-For-Progress blog post

In a blog post published the day after the event titled “DC One City Summit: Some First Impressions, All Aboard the 21st Century Unlimited– One City Summit Preliminary Report,” a policy researcher and writer named Jeff shares some useful reflections:

Participants came up with some highly sophisticated ideas that enhanced rather than sidetracked the City’s efforts to become less a city coming apart at the seams between rich and poor. Although, it should be noted that the wealthiest part of the city, Ward 3, was under-represented. There needs to be more effort built into the ethos, “That we are All in This Together.”

I particularly liked how many proposals built on an asset-based model of under-utilized resources like libraries (as satellites for colleges) and using abandoned building for start ups, and linking employed District residents to the unemployed who normally would be outside their networks. I was particularly impressed by the presentation that one Deputy Mayor  made on 0-2 children and its relationship to brain development. The idea being that getting children on track to the future begins at the earliest stage of life which pays dividends ranging from a factor of 3 to 17 and that it is important that there is adequate follow through to age 25 so people can live productive lives rather than being sidetracked into crime and other less useful pursuits. I also liked the Summit’s suggestion that community colleges become transmission belts to the workforce (along with other outside of the box ideas for the District’s educational system)…

The report below [download it here] amazingly enough was given to people as they left out the door of the Summit due to the push button technology used. Mayor Gray  was able to put together a coherent and responsive speech to the Summit’s findings at the close. He also promised to continue the process throughout his tenure as mayor and to use the Report as a Benchmark measuring his administration’s progress against the Indicators for Affordable Housing, Reduction of Inequality, Jobs, and a more Literate and Employment Ready Populace. As to complaints about the Summit’s price tag of $600,000, “penny wise, pound foolish.”

The DC One City Summit (blog post by Peter Levine)

In a blog post on February 15th (a few days after the summit), respected civics scholar Peter Levine expressed some frustration about the Washington Post’s coverage of the event:

The Washington Post chooses to lead its article by noting that the event has been “praised for engaging the public but criticized for its $600,000 price tag and seeming bureaucracy.” In this short piece, they also make sure to inform us that Mayor Anthony “Williams wore a plaid shirt and khakis, an everyman outfit” to a similar event in 1999, whereas Mayor Vincent “Gray appeared Saturday in a sports jacket and tieless.” By way of an explanation of the whole Summit, we read that “The Gray administration acknowledged the summit was a throwback to the administration of former Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a two-term mayor who often had to fight the perception that he was aloof.”

I was hoping the Post might actually report what all those citizens thought and said about the city. But I guess that’s not news; only the electoral motivations of professional politicians count as newsworthy.

Hundreds attend Mayor Gray’s ‘One City’ summit

The Washington Post article Peter was referring to, an informal blog post written on the day of the event by Nikita Stewart titled “Hundreds attend Mayor Gray’s ‘One City’ summit”, also had this to say:

But some participants questioned whether their ideas would be implemented while others wondered whether the “One City Summit,” was actually stuck in the past even as it used high-tech devices and was streamed live online.

When the One City Summit began, electronic devices and tweeting were prohibited, according to Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, founder and president of America Speaks, the nonprofit that facilitated the event. The announcement drew outrage among tweeters — inside and outside the event — and resulted in a reversal by the Gray administration and America Speaks.

Interesting to note for our field that telling people to “make sure their phones are turned off and stowed” so they can focus on the discussion may not to okay with attendees anymore — especially at large-scale events.

The mayor’s summit united D.C. residents to push forward

In a letter to the editor for the Washington Post, Matthew Frumin, chairman of DC’s District 3E Advisory Neighborhood Commission, reflected on his very positive experience at the Summit…

As I entered the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the One City Summit on Feb. 11, I carried the doubts expressed by many that the event might not be worth the time, effort or expense. When I left, I felt as if I had been offered yet another reason to fall in love with the District….

It may be a cliche, but sometimes the medium is the message. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) brought people together, presented (and had members of his senior team present) the city’s challenges and opportunities, and some ideas for tackling them; encouraged participants to work together and to offer ideas and feedback; and listened to the differing viewpoints. The event was a testament to his commitment to work to move us forward together.

9 Effective Engagement Tactics Utilized at the DC One City Summit

And I’ll end with Joseph Porcelli’s extraordinary post from his blog JosephPorcelli.com.  Joseph has given us permission to cross-post the complete post on the NCDD blog, which I wanted to do because it’s such a great resource for facilitators and convenors.  So I’ll be adding that post a bit later.

As an engagement strategist still recovering from chronic burnout as a result of my organizing efforts for the Boston Police Department and Neighbors for Neighbors (facilitating 250+ meetings a year for many years), I avoid spending entire Saturday afternoons at civic events like the plague. To my surprise, something extraordinary happened yesterday. I ended up staying at a civic event for 7 hours and had a productive and fun experience.

The event I’m referring to is Mayor Gray’s One City Summit. The Summit, facilitated by AmericaSpeaks, explored the question “how can we become more of One City?

Here is my professional take on why this summit, unlike other civic experiences I’ve participated in, was so effective and why other cities should pay close attention…

How’s that for a closing teaser?!  🙂

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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